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Showing posts from 2014

Merry Christmas from Saudi Claus?

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Gasoline prices across American have plummeted recently, plunging right through what I've come to call the "Gingrich threshold." (Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich promised during his 2012 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination that his policies would drop pump prices to $2.50 a gallon.) Now, even without the bumptious Pennsylvania native in the White House, some places are seeing prices 20 percent below that. I've seen some pro-Democratic sites add this to the list of achievements by President Obama, but that's reaching. The most we can say is that Obama's energy policies, such as they are, haven't prevented prices from dropping.

But we're not about politics or personalities here. We want to know: Why did this happen? Is this a good thing? And should I now buy a house in a subdivision in the cornfields?

Oil prices have been volatile since the turn of the millennium, which mostly have been due to fluctuations in supply. (An exception wa…

The latest bad news and our common life

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Those of us who expressed loud relief at the conclusion of the late election season ought to have been careful for what we wished. We are most of us used to election-year bloviating, after all, and eventually it goes away, and we move on with our lives. The news that has replaced all the campaigning this year, however, has dealt a series of body blows to our quest for a common life. It's enough to make you nostalgic for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-California) and his rumors of ISIS agents carrying Ebola germs over the Mexican border.

The grand jury decision not to seek indictment in the case of Eric Garner gave new life to restiveness about police treatment of blacks. The latest chapter began in August with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August. Garner, like Brown, was unarmed; he died of suffocation this past July while being physically restrained by a New York City police officer, and his last words were the now-famous phrase "I can't breathe." …

Obstacles to gentle gentrification

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The week-long series of reports on gentrification by the excellent public radio program "Marketplace" makes at least three things abundantly clear: [a] gentrification is occurring all over the country; [b] gentrification rarely if ever occurs without clear winners and losers, not to mention a lot of bad feelings; and [c] the reputation of gentrification is so broadly negative that the word itself carries a negative connotation. (It's what the rhetoric scholar S.I. Hayakawa called a "snarl word.")

Yet I maintain that the future of America, particularly urban America, requires gentrification. We need a little gentrification, right this very minute. Granted, it must be done right. It must be done gently. But it must be done.

Gentrification means the resettlement of the middle class in urban areas. It means the undoing of two generations of moving to suburbs ever farther away from the city center, leaving urban areas filled with working class and poor people, with…

Black Thursday: Does It Matter?

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The arms race among chain stores for Day-after-Thanksgiving shoppers breached midnight a couple years ago, and this year stores were advertising "doorbusters" as early as 5 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. The muscling in by holiday shopping onto what had been a sacred day for American civil religion has occasioned some outrage among commentators, which has in turn led to counter-outrage and charges of hypocrisy. My friend and fellow blogger John Heaton noted on Facebook:
For everyone concerned about retail workers having to work tomorrow, please don't forget to boycott the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade; NFL football; NHL ice hockey; NCAA football and basketballl; and literally anything else that airs on any TV or radio station. Unless you think it's OK for cameramen, engineers, stadium beer vendors, balloon wranglers, newscasters, and athletes to have to spend their holiday away from their families. My own initial instinct is to be, if not outraged, at least profoundly t…

Four towns, four days

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Last weekend I had the opportunity to drive south of chilly Iowa, as far as Arkansas, where the leaves were still colorful, but it was also chilly. The impetus was an event at the Clinton Presidential Museum and Library, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The museum is in a new building...

...but the neighboring Clinton School of Public Service is in a repurposed building that has been a train depot, shop and a storage facility over the years. The makeover is lovely.
Here's an interior shot, of the library where they had a reception for us visiting academics Thursday night. There's just something about a historic building.. The Clinton campus is located east of downtown, and has spurred some commercial development in the area now known as River Market. An internal report out in advance of the anniversary celebration credited the museum with spurring $2.5 billion in development since its opening (cited in Leslie Newell Peacock, "Ten Years After," Arkansas Ti…

Ballot initiatives: Election 2014

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There was more to Election Day than met the eye. Specifically, there were a number of state and local initiatives that bore directly on our common life. In nearly all of these cases I was unaware of the vote; the information below comes from the sources listed at the end of the piece.

Transportation. San Francisco and Seattle passed propositions that would expand public transit operations and routes, and in Seattle's case prevent proposed transit cuts by raising the city sales tax. San Francisco's Proposition A also set aside funding for 27 miles of bike routes, as well as traffic signal and crosswalk improvements for pedestrian safety. Other transit improvements were passed in Alameda County (Oakland), California; Arlington County (suburban Washington), Virginia; Clayton County (suburban Atlanta), Georgia; and the State of Rhode Island. Transportation measures lost in Alachua and Pinellas Counties (Gainesville and St. Petersburg, respectively), Florida, and Austin, Texas, whi…

Turn red for what?

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The off-year elections of 2014 occurred in the shadow of continued economic uncertainty. Economic indicators have shown improvement since the recession hit bottom in 2009, but the public is slow to buy into the idea of recovery--appropriately so, in my view. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last summer found respondents split almost down the middle: 50 percent believed the economy is improving, 47 percent disagreed. Similarly, 49 percent said the economy was still in recession, 46 percent disagreed. (The percentage describing the economy as in recession has steadily declined since 2010, but remains too high to describe the public mood as anything like confident.) 69 percent of respondents told CNN that another financial crisis in the near future was either "very likely" or "somewhat likely." (Source: Polling Report) As of today, the Real Clear Politics average on the question of whether the country is on the "right track" or the "wrong track" st…

The Greene Square formerly known as Park

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Things have taken a strange and alarming turn downtown. Or am I being melodramatic? The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported last week that the Parks and Recreation Department have released revised plans for Greene Square Park that are radically different from what had been earlier proposed. Granted that it's only one square block of a mid-sized American city, but I think the change in plans says a lot about the city's vision for its downtown. I'm not liking what I'm seeing.

There is no question that Greene Square Park is currently underutilized, as indeed is the case for the downtown area writ large. Back in the day, it was called Washington Square, and it was the central park in town, the square bounded by the train station, the high school, the library and First Presbyterian Church. (See George T. Henry and Mark W. Hunter, Then and Now: Cedar Rapids (Charleston SC: Arcadia, 2003, p. 96.) As the town moved outward so did these facilities (except the train station, which wa…

CROP Walking

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Early October in Linn County, Iowa, as in other places, is time for the annual CROP Walk to support Church World Service--a Christian ecumenical organization formed in 1946 to combat hunger and poverty. Numbers on this year's walk aren't available yet, but last year people from 26 churches raised $27,766.59 (including $150 in matching funds from Schneider Electric, and $70.09 "unaffiliated"). [Source is Ellen Fisher of the CROP Walk Planning Committee.]

Iowa weather in early October ranges from sunny and colorful--as, in fact, it is this afternoon as I write this--to miserable. For a long time CROP Walkers were blessed with nice weather, but these last few years it's been rainy more often than not. This year it was cloudy, and rained both before and after we walked, but during the walk itself it was mostly dry.

Why walk instead of just contributing money? I can think of three reasons why it's worth taking the extra steps to have this event.

First, for the don…

In search of old 45s

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Some free time and lovely weather inspired me to a walking tour of Washington, D.C. record stores last weekend. The stores were interesting, the exercise did me good, and it might have something to say about urbanism to boot.
We begin at Dupont Circle, a wheel of pavement the spokes of which are Connecticut Ave, New Hampshire Av, P St and 19th St. The interior is a nice park, and the exterior has sidewalks on both sides, but I found it confusing to walk, even in light Saturday afternoon traffic. There are lights at each intersection, but the walk times are so few and far between that one is tempted to walk any time there aren't vehicles approaching. This is perfectly rational at a conventional intersection, but probably not at a roundabout.
West of Dupont Circle is Second Story Books, 2000 P St. It mostly sells used books, so its name is somewhat appropriate, although it occupies the entire building, and sometimes even... ..the sidewalk!

They did have a few LPs, mainly jazz, albe…